As a boy, Nick Lees loved adventure and the camaraderie that came with it. Decades later, nothing’s changed
By Steven Sandor | January 3, 2024
As a Scotland-born boy growing up in England, Nick Lees relished the time he spent with the Boy Scouts (“I was a Queen’s Scout”). He got to escape into the great outdoors — to hike, to have adventures. And he revelled in the camaraderie that came with it.
“Sitting around the campfire and singing a song. That’s a memory that’s precious to me.”
Adventures and camaraderie were important to Nick Lees as a boy, and they’re just as important to him now.
Whether it’s climbing Mount Logan, jumping out of airplanes or running marathons while carrying a ladder, Lees has never been one to say no to adventure. He’s helped raise millions of dollars for charities, and used his power for 30 years as an Edmonton Journal columnist to “shine a light on those of us who need to have a light shined on them.”
Lees has cemented a legacy. It’s evident when you walk into his room at a west-end seniors’ complex and see the plaques hanging on the wall. The Jubilee Medal. A City of Edmonton citation. A distinguished citizen award from MacEwan University. There are more. But awards aren’t the motivation for Lees — it’s all about community, and adventure.
“I love making friends,” says Lees. “And when people are hostile to me, I love that even more.”
Lees worked as a reporter before he came to Canada. But, he didn’t go straight into the newspaper business after he arrived here; he worked a variety of odd jobs — until his first Edmonton winter, at which point he applied to the Edmonton Journal, and got back into the business — as a court reporter.
But he “didn’t want to go to court every day,” and soon he was on the general assignment desk — where he broke some of the cardinal rules of journalism: that those of us covering stories should never be part of those stories.
“It was fun and it was highly readable,” Lees says. “I was notorious in my own way. A lot of people at the Journal were pissed off at me. That was because I did what I wanted to do and created a story out of it.”
Lees wrote about parachuting with a pack sack and rifle, cycling adventures, mountain climbing, marathon running and canoe trips into the Canadian wild. His stories about Edmonton focused on the real characters that made the place special, and the charitable causes that needed a hand up. Sure, Lees broke the rules, but he was doing good — and isn’t that what service journalism is all about?
“I did it because my goal was to help so many people by telling good stories,” says Lees. “It came from my mom and dad, that you should always be able to help when you can. You have to understand that life can be a trial for some, and an easy march for others.”
Lees has run marathons all over the world — about 60 of them. And he dreamed up a publicity stunt that would help raise money for charities. Runners often talk about “hitting the wall,” when the pain becomes too much during a distance run. Athletes need to know how to get over this barrier. So, Lees thought, why not bring a ladder to the run? It became such a goofy, popular thing, he was able to sell ad space on it, with the proceeds going to charity.
“It became something of an ongoing joke,” Lees says. “Other runners would come and carry the ladder for a while. Some carried it for 200 yards, while some others might carry it for a couple of miles.”
In 2014, Lees had an idea to raise funds for the Stollery: Wouldn’t it be awesome if a totem pole could be placed in the hospital? Ben Davidson, an artist and carver from Haida Gwaii, British Colombia, was commissioned for the project. Lees then organized a group of 40 riders to bike from Edmonton out to Haida Gwaii. The totem pole travelled to Edmonton via trailer, but it would be accompanied by an escort of cyclists. The ride raised more than $450,000 for the Stollery. Sadly, in 2020, Davidson passed away from a heart attack at the age of 44.
Edmonton Journal Editor-in-Chief Allan Mayer said that while some journalists take on assignments, Lees was an “idea machine” and that he’d dreamed of doing the Edmonton-Haida Gwaii run for 20 years.
Last year, he made his final run, which raised about $50,000 for the University Hospital Foundation. Now, Lees is battling cancer. And he’s grateful for the support of his friends and the city as a whole.
“I am so glad people have stepped up to help me,” he says.
It’s the least we could do for someone who has done so much for Edmonton.